Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Final Post

I guess four months is a long time to spend in a tent in the Arctic. When I got here in April, the sun went down for a few hours at night and everything was still frozen. In June the ice melted and everything turned green. The midnight sun came up for the solstice and then slowly went back down in late July. Now every night is getting a little darker and colder.

The science was more of a marathon than a sprint, although there were weeks in May and June when we were working constantly. July was fairly quiet. By then everything that was going to break had broken and most of the instrument quirks had been worked out, not to mention camp was set up and organized by then.

To measure the chemical and physical evolution of the Greenland Ice Sheet through the melt season, we had to consistently take the same measurements for months. Every day for most of the season we’d check the same instruments, download the same data, and hike to the same places.

Already, I can see evidence in my data of the changing glacial hydrology through the season. Just by looking at radon isotopes, I can tell that meltwater flowed very slowly in the beginning of the melt season traveling through tortured conduits in the ice. Then as the season progressed, flow channels opened up and melt increased making it easier for meltwater to move more efficiently to the ice sheet’s base and to its edges. We’ve also seen the chemical signature of several supraglacial lake drainage events. These events are important because they transport heat stored in surface meltwater to the ice sheet’s base resulting in more melt and faster glacial movement.

Overall, the fieldwork this summer was very physical. Often it felt like my PhD was in carrying heavy equipment around instead of chemical oceanography. My hands seemed to be always burning or numb with cold. I cut up and sewed a pair of socks into a pair of fingerless gloves that I wore most of July. Towards the end of June, there were occasional evenings when it was warm with just enough wind to keep the mosquitoes away but not so windy as to drive you crazy. On these nights, we’d bring our chairs out of the mess tent to eat, talk and read in the late-night sun. In July the mosquitoes were gone but cooler weather and heavy wind and rain kept us in tents for most meals though work was still outside.

When equipment was working properly we had downtime in camp. Without Internet, TV, phones, places to go or people to see, there were few distractions. Like it or not, life was simple. I spent my free time playing guitar and reading. Camp became a sort of book club. Everyone brought one or two books and so we read our books and then each other’s and talked about them over meals.

I’ll probably miss all this and I’ll definitely miss the people I met. Being immersed in nature and subjected to the elements reminds you that you’ve always got a choice. You can accept what’s going on or get upset wishing things were different. No matter how much you curse the cold and wind it’s going to stay cold and windy until it stops. Living outdoors reminds us where we came from and how tough we are. More importantly, I think living outside reminds us how important a sense of humor is. Everything is more fun and makes more sense when you laugh at yourself, everyone and everything.

That’s it folks. I pulled out of camp yesterday and today I’m sorting out my ‘kit’ in Kangerlussuaq. Tomorrow I catch a flight to Sisimiut, a coastal town 100 miles west of here. I'll camp and hike around there for six days and then catch a ferry to Nuke, Greenland’s capital city. I’ll spend a couple days hiking around there before flying to Iceland where I hope to (you guessed it) camp a few nights before finally flying back to the States on August 20, having spent 118 days away. Today I’m shipping my computer home and don’t plan to check email until I’m back in the States. If I see narwhals or walruses or have some sort of adventure worth sharing here, I’ll write it in my journal and post it here when I get home. But for now this is it!

Thank you to everyone who read my haphazard writing and thanks to everyone who wrote to me while I was away. It meant a lot to me to know that people were thinking of us. I’m looking forward to going home but for now I think I need just one more adventure.

Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me,
Leading wherever I choose.
     From “Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman


  1. Hi Ben,

    I just read a few of your posts and enjoyed the glimpse into a secluded summer (or something like that) of work. I could relate to your experience having worked at Philmont Scout Ranch during the summers between college sessions. I last worked at Philmont 20 years ago and still remember the isolation, joy and special relationships that were made.

    I did a quick google search and discovered you're from MN too. I hope your trip home is less work but as much fun as your summer. Thank you for sharing your experiences with the rest of us.


  2. Greenland seems to be a tempting destination as far as photography goes. I wonder how easy it would be to find shelter in a place like that?

    Meanwhile I'm trying to present Norway and Norwegian nature
    at 'seenorway.wordpress.com'